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‘Not a smart move’

Congress’s failure to agree how to reduce federal debt threatens science with huge cuts across the board. But there may be some hope, Rebecca Trager reports.

US science agencies, and the researchers depending on them to fund their work, are threatened by the recent failure of the congressional “supercommittee” to reach an agreement on how to reduce the federal debt by $1.2  trillion (€890bn). Missing the deadline automatically triggers about $1.2tn in across-the-board cuts over nine years, starting in January 2013.

The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other research agencies comprising the non-defence discretionary part of the federal budget, face automatic budget reductions of about 8 per cent in fiscal year 2013 under this so-called “sequestration”, explains Patrick Clemins, a budget analyst for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The supercommittee, created in August as part of the deal between lawmakers and President Barack Obama’s administration to raise the US debt ceiling, had until 23 November to agree a deficit-reduction plan. This was to be put to Congress for approval before Christmas. But the committee admitted defeat on 21 November, saying Republicans and Democrats on the panel just could not agree.

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and others note that research funding is an area of bipartisan support and say it would have almost definitely fared better in any deal negotiated by the supercommittee than it will in the sequestration.

Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee have estimated that the automatic cuts will reduce the number of NIH-funded research grants to at least 2,500 below that in fiscal year 2011. NSF says the cuts mean about 1,500 fewer research and education grants, and 18,000 fewer researchers, students and technical-support personnel. Others agree that the sequestration could significantly hamper science agencies. “These agencies would have to push major projects out into the future and restrict the amount of money available to the research community,” says Clemins.

For example, an 8 per cent cut at NIH means $2.5 billion off the budget, putting tremendous pressure on the agency. NIH and NSF typically award multi-year grants. They are already committed to so many projects that new grants would suffer disproportionately.

Observers also suggest that the Department of Energy would have to consider consolidating some of its national laboratories if the Office of Science budget is slashed by 8 per cent.

“If science has to absorb an 8 per cent reduction…most of that will simply come from the workforce,” says American Physical Society spokesman Michael Lubell. “You take a typical NIH or NSF research grant—most of that money goes to support graduate students, postdocs and faculty members.”

For many, a reduction in the scientific and technical workforce of the US amounts to foreclosing on the future—not a smart move.

Former Republican congressman John Porter, who once chaired the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NIH, and is now chairman of the advocacy group Research!America, declared in a 21 November statement: “The mindless, irresponsible across-the-board cuts of the sequester would drain the lifeblood from our efforts to improve the health of our nation and could cause the loss of our 65-year leadership in science, technology and innovation.”

Sam Rankin, who chairs the Coalition for National Science Funding—an alliance of over 100 organisations focused on the future vitality of the US science, mathematics and engineering enterprise—says if research agencies’ budgets stay flat or see some small growth “that is just about as much an anyone could hope for.”

But the story’s not quite over yet. There is a full calendar year in which to make adjustments that could alter the outcome of the supercommittee’s failure to agree. The widespread agreement in Congress and the administration that research investments drive economic growth offers some hope that science agency budgets might end up being protected after all. They could be increased in the FY2013 appropriations to compensate for the sequestration, for example.

For now, however, the research community needs a plan and must take action, or it might be in for a rude awakening. Various interests will be trying to impress upon appropriators why their specific causes should be spared the axe, so the arguments for science will have to start now and continue throughout the whole year.

“Everybody is going to be fighting for the same thing—it is going to be a bloodbath,” Lubell warns.

Meanwhile, the heads of science agencies would do well to assume that their budgets will be slashed by 8 per cent in FY2013 and plan accordingly. They cannot assume anything else. And it is so much easier to add at the last minute than to take away.

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